Big Bend National Park Birdwatching Overview
Big Bend National Park Highlights
- Established in 1944 to preserve 12,000 square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert, Big Bend is home to more than 450 kinds of birds. Big Bend is best known for the birds in the Chisos Mountains.
- Some of the unique birds in this region are the Mexican duck, the Lucifer hummingbird, the Mexican jay, the black-capped and gray vireos, the Colima warbler, and the varied bunting that arrive at different times of the year.
- You can find the peregrine falcon in the steep-sided canyons of the Chisos Mountains. Some areas of the park are closed during the falcon's breeding season to ensure the safety of the bird in the park.
- Twelve species of owls live in Big Bend, including the great horned owl, burrowing owl, elf owl, flammulated owl, eastern screen owl, and western screech owl. Rarer seen owls are the barn owl, northern pygmy owl, northern saw-whet owl, short-eared owl, and long-eared owl.
More than 400 species of birds have been seen in this birders' paradise, including one—the Colima warbler—that is found nowhere else in the United States. The park lies right on the flyway for birds winging north out of Mexico and, indeed, almost three-fourths of the species recorded in the park fly right on through. During the spring migration northbound birds confront the northwest-southeast trending Sierra del Carmen Mountains. Instead of flying over them, most birds keep to the west and are funneled right into the park. For the return trip in fall, however, the Sierra del Carmen have the opposite effect. Many southbound birds peel off east at Persimmon Gap. The fall migration is smaller and brings more lowland than mountain species.
The springtime bursts of birdsong are inspired by the drive to claim territory, as some 100 species nest within the park. Many of these breeding birds will abandon the lowlands as soon as their young are big enough, moving to the mountains to beat the heat. Rio Grande Village, for example, is at its low ebb for birdlife in July, and in the Chisos Basin you will find yourself identifying lowland birds left and right! But all in all, Rio Grande Village, with its ponds, cottonwood groves, rich riverbottoms, heavy brushlands, and neighboring desert, is the best year-round birding site in the park. In the springtime it offers an unbelievable display of species.
The Chisos Basin is the second best overall birding site, providing a long parade of mountain birds throughout the year, as well as lowland birds. The Basin is one of three spots for the annual Christmas Bird Count, along with Rio Grande Village and the Castolon-Santa Elena Canyon area. Over a five-year period, 147 species have been counted at these locations at Christmas time.
By the Rio Grande, you find summer tanagers, painted buntings, vermilion flycatchers, and cardinals serving as accent colors to the background greens of floodplain foliage. On the river's gravel and sandbars and on its cliffbanks are other creatures you would not expect to find in the Chihuahuan Desert. The sandpiper and killdeer bob and sprint on the sandbars, and the cliff swallow flies up to its adobe nest fashioned of river mud.
The Colima warbler is probably the park's most famous bird, because in all of the United States it nests only here in the Chisos Mountains. It arrives in April from southwest Mexico and leaves in mid-September. The Big Bend has also remained one of the few successful breeding grounds of the peregrine falcon, a species that suffered much from pesticides. You are most likely to see peregrines during their spring migration, but nesting pairs have been sighted at Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas canyons and in the Chisos Mountains. These predatory birds prefer to nest in a scrape on a high cliff ledge. This falcon, about the size of a crow, is slaty backed and barred below, with a pair of black "mustaches" on the face. In its magnificent dive, the peregrine is one of the fastest moving animals on Earth.
For advice on good birding spots at any time of the year, or on where to find specific birds, ask a ranger or at park headquarters.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication